“So with a kind of madness growing upon me,” Wells’s Time Traveller said, “I flung myself into futurity.” Robert Scholes’s suggestion in Structural Fabulation—the initials, you will notice, are S and F—is that we should fling ourselves in the same direction. “I am asserting,” he asserts, “that the most appropriate kind of fiction that can be written in the present and the immediate future is fiction that takes place in future time.” Scholes thinks some of us may find his book too polemical, but really it is just too rhetorical, an assembly of rickety simplifications and overstatements. Admittedly it began life as a series of lectures, but that excuse will go only so far. Scholes is distinctly too eager to advise us. Those who read no one but Jacqueline Susann and Leon Uris and Arthur Hailey are in Scholes’s view “dangerously uninformed” about reality. “To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future” (Scholes’s italics). It seems more likely that to live at all in the future, we need to see into the present.
Scholes’s argument is an old one, already implicit in Wells, and it constitutes science fiction’s favorite alibi. The genre prepares us for drastic change, helps us to meet our sudden tomorrows. Materially, if we take the hard line—after all, Jules Verne put men on the moon long before our astronauts got there. Morally, if we take a softer line, as James Gunn does in Alternate Worlds. For him the function of science fiction is not so much to foresee the crises of the future as to “dramatize their human implications and consequences.” But there is a fallacy even here. Apart from a few lucky exceptions, science fiction is not set in the future at all. Its future is a metaphor for a radically altered present, and it is the altering that matters, the speculative rearrangement of familiar elements.
Science fiction is a version of romance which relies on technological allusions, indeed which is so much about technology that it can sometimes dispense with the allusions. It is the dream of men “torn by love and fear of a technology they could scarcely understand, much less control,” as Leslie Fiedler rather luridly puts it in an introduction to a recent anthology of science fiction stories, In Dreams Awake.* Less luridly, it is the fiction of a culture caught up in its own cleverness, confronted with the results of its own ingenuity and intelligence, and it is for this reason that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presides over the genre.
Science fiction is Victor Frankenstein’s monster, peering back at its creator with “yellow, watery, but speculative eyes,” a mirror in the house of intellect, raised not by pride or passion or the urging of the gods, but by curiosity and the capacity for invention. Frankenstein is not Faust, he is not driven by an all-consuming desire, not even the desire to blaspheme. The triviality of his motives is an important feature of the myth. There is scarcely a theme in science fiction, from robots and space travel to a world devastated by a bomb or some terminal epidemic disease, which doesn’t reflect this fascination with the results of our careless intelligence, and of course the invasion of the earth by alien beings looks suspiciously like Frankenstein’s problem in interplanetary disguise. Even stories about carnivorous plants and fungi tend to attribute sinister intentions to these growths, so that they too are instances of minds become threatening.
Darker science fiction expends a lot of ingenuity in demonstrating what the future will look like if we are not intelligent enough—the title of C. M. Kornbluth’s story “The Marching Morons” is evocative in this respect—and generally the inventiveness of much science fiction enacts the theme of cleverness itself, so that the writing becomes an example of what it is about. This is so much the case, I think, that any really ingenious piece of writing, whatever its subject, veers toward science fiction.
The technology in science fiction is often a pretext, the ship that steers us off into the orbit of other worlds, provinces of an interstellar anthropology. But even there, in the silence of those infinite spaces, something like the spirit of technology still presides, a sense of intellectual gadgetry. These other worlds are devised rather than developed, they are theorems rather than places, and this is not the expression of an incidental failing in a lot of science fiction writers, but an essential aspect of the genre. Its thin characters and sketchy locations, the general lack of texture and density in its portrayed planets, are flaws only if we are looking for the complication of life which fiction so often provides. If we are looking, in Scholes’s phrase, for “some projected dislocation of our known existence,” then these flaws help to lighten our baggage for us, become the agents of a transparency which allows us to see through the text to the bones of its ingenuity. A good science fiction story always sounds good in summary, because it depends not on a seen universe or a recollected emotion but on a radical thought.
Science fiction is not really imaginative literature at all, since its aim is not to render experience, either probable or fantastic, but to construct possibilities. It is “the literature of cognitive estrangement,” as Darko Suvin weightily puts it. It takes us out of our world in order to show us our world in a new, glinting light, and it is here that science fiction meets up with modernist literature and modernist criticism, because it sees its stories not as imitations of life but as hypotheses about life, speculations in the form of narrative.
The difficulty with Suvin’s theory, as with Kingsley Amis’s earlier view (science fiction’s “most important use” was as a means of “dramatizing social inquiry” and “providing a fictional mode in which cultural tendencies can be isolated”), lies in its moral seriousness, to coin a phrase. Amis prefigured (in 1960) and Suvin (in 1972) reflects the growing academic interest in science fiction, which can also be seen in Scholes’s book and Fiedler’s anthology (as well as in Fiedler’s science fiction novel, The Messengers Will Come No More), in 150 or 1,000 (counts differ) courses in science fiction currently being given in American colleges and universities, in the arrival of a Cliff Notes trot for science fiction, and in the existence of an interesting scholarly journal called Science Fiction Studies. I have no wish to complain about this, since I am all for taking any form of literature seriously. But I do want to suggest that such seriousness exacts a price.
It forces us, first, to discount or devalue the ordinary, blatant escapism of so much science fiction, which is simply high adventure up among the stars. The science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, is virtually indistinguishable from his Tarzan stories, even in the matter of plant life (“The trees of the forest attracted my deep admiration as I proceeded toward the sea. Their great stems, some of them fully a hundred feet in diameter, attested their prodigious height, which I could only guess at, since at no point could I penetrate their dense foliage above me to more than sixty or eighty feet”—this is a landscape on Mars).
And the science fiction of E. E. Smith is a game of cops and robbers on a grand scale and with advanced equipment (“The fate of all Civilization might very well depend upon the completeness of his butchery this day….” “But when we cut our generators in that other tube we emerged into our own space. How do you account for that?”). If we read “Xodar listened in incredulous astonishment,” or “After the Aldebaranian girl had had her breakfast,” or “Hari Seldon—born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069,” or “A ‘thwok-thwok’ of ornithopter wings sounded high to the right” we are not estranged from anything, and still less is there any cognition taking place. We are off on a cozy trip to a harmless exotic kingdom. These odd names and objects and planets, these unreal dates, guarantee a pleasant torpor in the reading mind, the opposite of the “slight discomfort” or the “residual uneasiness” which Amis sees as the characteristic effect of science fiction.
A great deal of science fiction is not uneasy at all but boyishly optimistic about human prospects, a naïve expression of the indomitable human spirit which takes off into space with the enthusiasm of Huck Finn going fishing. Even James Gunn, himself a writer of science fiction and a person engaged in providing what he calls a “consensus history” of the genre, objects to the “dismal view of man” displayed by writers like Aldous Huxley and Nevil Shute, and calls on Faulkner and Dylan Thomas as patrons of an unflagging desire to survive:
Man, science fiction says, will not surrender peacefully; he will struggle to the end, studying how to live under water, on a frozen or a flaming Earth, in outer space, on the most hostile worlds.
He will not, in other words, go gentle into that good night, and he sounds about as estranged as Winston Churchill. This may not be the sort of science fiction that intellectuals like, but it is the sort that science fiction fans read, and I don’t think we can dismiss it as “space opera” and let it go at that.
Our seriousness, secondly, tends to deny a crucial element in science fiction: its gratuitousness. It is often called a form of utopian writing, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” But a utopia is usually morally motivated, designed to improve the world we live in; just as fantasy is usually psychologically motivated, rooted in a distaste for the world as it is. Science fiction often seems not to be motivated at all, to be an acte gratuit of the rational mind, to rise from a restless, pointless juggling ingenuity, the waking sleep, as Leslie Fiedler suggests, of robots that can’t be switched off. Like Victor Frankenstein, science fiction indulges in a wild and idle intellectual curiosity, and it is the combination of wildness and idleness and intellect that we enjoy. Its patron saint is the pure scientist, the model of a man who finds out things he doesn’t need to know. This may be heroism, criminal folly, or a complete waste of time, depending on what he finds out, but there is a recklessness about the venture in any case, a sense of the intelligence engaged in a gratuitous athletic exploit.
This is not to say science fiction is not full of messages and moralizing, merely that such things are probably more important to the writers of science fiction than they are to its readers. Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, for example, published in 1953, projects an America where oil is so scarce that taxis have been replaced by pedicabs; where the air is so bad that everyone is issued with free soot plugs; where the coffee contains an addictive ingredient that hooks people for life. The country is run by two rival advertising agencies, which bear more than a passing resemblance to two twentieth-century political parties, and the president is merely a figurehead. When Congress is convened, he has the State of the Union message read to him. This is all prophetic enough, and clearly a cautionary point is being made. But the careful, comic precision of the details offers a pleasure which has very little to do with either the prophecy or the point. Science fiction is a literature of ideas where having the ideas is what counts.
Finally, our seriousness gets us into tangles about the value of science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon has said that 90 percent of it is rubbish, because 90 percent of everything that gets published is rubbish, but this dubious proposition seems to me to give too much away. A good deal of science fiction, like much popular writing of other kinds, is intelligent and workmanlike stuff, not to be confused with Shakespeare, but not to be consigned to the ashcan either, and of course Sturgeon’s Law, as the proposition has come to be known, allows people to make desperate claims for the salvaged 10 percent, either by overpraising writers like Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or by subtly appropriating Kafka for the genre.
If we take literature to be imaginative literature, then science fiction, as I have said, scarcely belongs in the category at all. We can compare the Wells of Mr. Polly and Tono-Bungay with Conrad and Henry James (and find him wanting). But we can prefer the Wells of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, and we can’t compare him with Conrad and James because the terms of comparison are simply missing. We don’t judge mathematicians by the painting they do in their spare time. And in any case, science fiction as a genre is less a collection of individual stories, however well or ill told, than a stock of recurring themes: robots, space travel, and the rest. It is not so much a mythology as a fund of fairy tales about the modern mind, and even poor science fiction has at least the flicker of an intellectual challenge which is entirely lacking in, say, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
To take a trivial example, when Captain Kirk and his men, in Star Trek, arrive on an alien planet to find it inhabited by nonhumans who behave like Thirties Chicago gangsters, tough talk, machine guns, and all, because a book about the mobs was left behind there long ago, and is now treated as a Bible, this is not only a good gag and a fine excuse to get Kirk and Spock and the others into suits and fedoras and a lot of period slang, it also hints faintly and wittily at what the archaeology of our time may come to look like. The estrangement is not cognitive and not serious, but it is mildly speculative all the same, a leap into futurity which is a glance at the present.
Historians of science fiction have trouble with the early days of the genre. Should they start with Lucian’s True History, Cyrano’s Voyage dans la lune, or with Gulliver’s Travels? How about Dante? Marlowe? The Tempest? Brian Aldiss starts with Frankenstein, not for the sort of reason I have been suggesting, but because he sees science fiction as an offspring of the Gothic mode, and “hardly free of it now.” But once they reach Verne and Wells everything settles down, and an orderly procession begins: Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. Smith, the “golden age” of Van Vogt, Heinlein, and Asimov, the uneasy Fifties of Pohl and Kornbluth, the Sixties inner landscapes of J. G. Ballard.
I suppose most people’s lists of landmarks would include Stapledon’s The Star-Maker, Asimov’s Foundation, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Herbert’s Dune. Somewhere out on the literary edges are C.S. Lewis and Ray Bradbury. The important moments in the publishing of science fiction are Hugo Gernsback’s founding of the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, and John W. Campbell’s editorship of Astounding Science Fiction (earlier called Astounding Stories, later Analog) from 1938 to 1971.
Gunn’s Alternate Worlds is at its best on the subject of such magazines, and of science fiction fans, with their arcane expertise and their invented languages, in which one says fiawol, meaning fandom is a way of life, and it’s time to gafiate, meaning get away from it all. Following science fiction is a hobby, as Gunn says, like collecting stamps or baseball cards. But it is a hobby tinged with the excitements of technology, however obliquely experienced or pursued, and Gunn conveys very well a sense of science fiction fans as caught up in a network of fervent secret societies. Otherwise, Gunn’s book is an amiable ramble through the history of the genre in its American manifestations, with a glance or two at England, and apart from a chapter on Verne, no glances at all at anywhere else.
James Gunn mentions Ursula K. Le Guin only once, but Scholes devotes a whole lecture/chapter to her, calling her the Good Witch of the West (because she lives in Oregon and is the daughter of the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber), and assuring us that she “deserves a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction.’ Her earlier novel The Left Hand of Darkness has acquired a certain fame because of its central invention, a race of androgynes whose sexual activities are confined to the four or five days of the month when they are in heat. A person then becomes either male or female, and the partner, “triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role.” Everyone can thus be a father and a mother, and sexuality plays no part in life except during periods of estrus.
Various consequences follow, the most obvious of which is the difficulty the narrator of the novel, a visitor from earth, has in talking about these people. He sees them as women, talks of them as men, can’t think of them as neuter, and an interesting map of sexual ideologies begins to take shape. The book has a tremendous trek across a glacier which recalls the conclusion of Frankenstein, and offers a sharp view of internecine and international intrigue on a world far out in space. For my taste, there is too much arch play with funny-looking names (“When I woke I was in the Commensal Hospital of Charisune Coastal Area Four, Twenty-fourth Commensality, Sennethny”), and there are too many attempts at a wise philosophy, as in the poem from which the title comes:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
We learn that human existence needs its fears and its shadows, that men need women, and that yin needs yang. Into each life, so to speak, a little ice must fall. Politically, the novel seems to suggest that the only alternative to a Russia run by the secret police is an America which has slithered back into European feudalism, and that the alternative is really not a bad one at that.
The Dispossessed is a much stronger work on similar themes, since it links sexual discrimination with politics and ideas about property. Shevek, the hero, is a scientist on Anarres, which is the moon of Urras and has been settled by a group of anarchists who were making trouble on the home planet. It is a barren place, there are no birds or trees, and not much water, so that cooperation is not a virtue but a necessity, a means of survival. Life there intermittently resembles life on a kibbutz, life in an idealized Russia or China, the life of the early American pioneers. There is no property, no marriage, although people are allowed to become lifelong partners if they wish. Le Guin brilliantly raises the question of women in society by having the names of people on Anarres give no indication of sex. The trick then is to mention a person as having a job we think of as male terrain, give us time to assume the person is a man, and reveal to us that she is a woman. Yet even here, on this stark, unpolitical planet, a bureaucracy grows up, a system of power and privilege, made all the worse because there is no visible tyrannical authority, only what Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority in the hearts and minds of the people of Anarres.
Depressed and constricted by all this, Shevek decides to visit the home planet, Urras, the old world of his ancestors. He is invited to a university there to work on his new General Temporal Theory, which will build on the achievements of Einstein (who appears in the novel as Ainsetain) in order to erase or counteract the vast time differences which separate worlds in space. The theory would thus be very useful to the civilizations portrayed in the book, since lifetimes would no longer have to be lost in travel, and places previously too far away to be explored would be brought within range. It would also be a terrific gift to science fiction at large, since it would eliminate the need for all those creaking, clock-stopping devices like deep-freeze sleep which allow space travelers to arrive in the outer galaxies only a day or so older than when they left earth.
But Urras is an exaggerated version of modern America, a planet addicted to property and the exclusion of women from all significant activity. Shevek is repeatedly shocked by this, and Le Guin has him make a sort of pun: “They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.” What they don’t possess is Shevek’s theory, although they are trying to get it from him. He takes part in a rally of the oppressed and exploited of Urras, is almost killed, and escapes to the embassy of Earth on that planet, whence he is shipped off back to Anarres and its dispossessed population, having given his theory to several worlds at once, thereby preventing aggressive use of it, and having learned that you can go home again, “as long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.”
The words might almost be a motto for science fiction in general, with its stories of escape that can only bring us back to where we started. “Outside the locked room,” Le Guin writes, “is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.” The Dispossessed is full of talk of walls, and Shevek’s theory is a destroyer of walls, a way out of the locked room. But once we are out there, everything remains to be done, we return to the world of moral and political possibilities which is the ordinary universe of literature (and of life), home again from the genuine but cerebral joys of science fiction.
The inhabitants of Roger Zelazny’s Sign of the Unicorn are not human beings at all but a race of aristocrats who live in another dimension and who can slip in and out of Earth, which they call Shadow, when they feel like it. They are a squabbling crew of brothers and sisters, a sort of outsize Borgia family complete with daggers and swords and Renaissance castles, and the plot of the novel is closer to that of a thriller than to most science fiction plots. I mention the book, though, because it is good, because it solves the stylistic problem of science fiction in an interesting way, and because it represents a sort of boundary of science fiction, the place where it ends.
To take the last point first, the members of the family can speak to each other by means of decks of playing cards, and can actually conjure each other up physically with them. This is a form of whimsical magic which has nothing to do with science, or science fiction. On the other hand, when on Earth the family can manipulate landscapes at will, so that trees, rocks, mountains, and weather compose themselves into whatever arrangement is required, and this, it seems to me, while remaining in the realm of magic and fantasy, has something of the conceptual interest of science fiction.
Witches and wizards in medieval romance can change scenery about, turn castles into hovels and so on, but we see it’s been done, we don’t see them doing it, and this is where Zelazny moves into that zone of ingenuity which is science fiction’s domain: “As I went, I played the Shadow game we all learned as children. Pass some obstruction—a scrawny tree, a stand of stone—and have the sky be different from one side to the other. Gradually I restored familiar constellations. I knew that I would be climbing down a different mountain from the one I ascended…. The world shimmered and did a final jig, becoming the California I had been seeking.” We are not invited to see anything here, but to conceive of something we can’t really conceive, to bend our minds around a corner. Here is another example:
An adjustment in the relationships of objects suddenly occurred, eroding my sense of depth, destroying perspective, rearranging the display of articles within my field of vision, so that everything presented its entire outer surface without simultaneously appearing to occupy an increased area: angles predominated, and relative sizes seemed suddenly ridiculous. Random’s horse reared and neighed, massive, apocalyptic, instantly recalling Guernica to my mind. And to my distress I saw that we ourselves had not been untouched by the phenomenon but that Random, struggling with his mount…had, like everything else, been transfigured by this cubist dream of space.
The writing of most science fiction, the movement of its style, is brisk and efficient but rather drab. Attempts at fine writing (“The rain sang light in the sodden palmettos”) don’t seem to work, and the frequent solemnity of the genre, illustrated by my earlier quotations from Le Guin, makes for worthiness rather than real persuasion. I know of only two more or less satisfactory solutions to the problem. One is John Brunner’s (in Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and more recently. The Shockwave Rider), and that is to write not badly but anyhow, because you’re in a hurry and your interest is elsewhere. Writing and reading this kind of thing is akin to the pleasures of speaking a foreign language fluently but terribly.
And the other solution is Zelazny’s, and that is to crash and collapse styles in much the same way as he conflates perspectives. His tone, when it is not simply deadpan, is jocular and in resolute bad taste. “Out of every life a little blood must spill,” his hero hums after he has been stabbed. Getting a story from his brother, he says, “To paraphrase Oedipus. Hamlet, Lear and all those guys. I wish I had known this some time ago.” The effect, as with Brunner, is to abolish the whole question of style, and this is in keeping with the brilliant pointlessness of Zelazny’s novels. They simply can’t be read for meaning, and I hope most of us have some sort of place for such fiction in our reading lives.
“Having served under Napoleon, Lee, and MacArthur,” Zelazny’s hero says, “I appreciated the tactician as well as the strategist.” And: “I wondered what Freud would have said…. I wished I could have had one more session with him.” Undergoing a particularly severe mental ordeal, he thinks, “A coffee break for Sisyphus.” This is all closer to Mel Brooks’s young Frankenstein than to Mary Shelley’s old one, but mingling triviality and intelligence Zelazny remains in the best tradition of that unnatural founding father, who created a synthetic life because he couldn’t resist his own ingenuity, who stumbled so thoughtlessly on the contents of the sleep of reason.
October 2, 1975